Undergraduate research is one of the most rewarding activities at McGill. Experience in undergraduate research exposes students to scientific inquiry, laboratory procedures, and the graduate school environment. However, as rewarding as research is, if you’re just starting university, securing it may be daunting and unfamiliar.
Fortunately, MSURJ is here to help! The following is our breakdown of undergraduate research: what skills to have, how to apply, and what to do in the lab. After reading our guide, you’ll hopefully have the confidence and knowledge to secure that research position you’ve wanted!
Lesson 1: Preparing a Strong Application
A strong application which displays your best qualities is key when contacting professors for research. Here are some tips on how to make your application stand out.
Research requires more than just technical skills. Some helpful qualities in research include communication, creativity, persistence, and organization. In particular, creativity is vital when conducting independent research projects. Make sure to emphasize these skills on top of your technical ones when drafting a CV or email.
Get Involved, Attend Events
Research-related events are constantly happening across campus and they’re a great way to meet faculty and talk with professors about their research. Most of the time, professors who attend these events are looking for students to join their labs!
For example, departments often hold Departmental Research Days and Departmental wine and cheeses, while the Faculty of Science holds Soup and Science. You can also attend special research-related events, or stay connected with the Student Research Initiative. Another good way to be in the loop about these events is through SUS and faculty newsletters.
It’s important to be proactive when securing research. Contact more than one professor or researcher because labs are often full, and don’t wait until the last minute! Making contact as early as possible is just as important because labs often fill up quickly.
Secondly, all research labs are relying more and more on programming. Computer software is invaluable for data analysis, visualization, and computational modeling. As a result, knowing how to program adds another skill that will make you useful in the lab. The most common languages in research are Python, MATLAB, ImageJ, C, and R. While you can self-teach yourself these, taking a course such as COMP 202 is a good way to start learning.
Lesson 2: Getting into Research
Now that you have the skills for research, it’s time to find laboratory opportunities. McGill has countless resources to give your research experience, and not all of them involve contacting professors.
Research Opportunities (During the Term)
McGill offers numerous research courses that you can take for credits. Specifically, there are a total of 396 classes that involve supervised research, which you can take with any department in the Faculty of Science, and 466 classes involving independent research, which you must take with your own department in Science.
If you wish to do a thesis during your undergraduate studies, considering applying for the Honours option of your program, if offered. The Faculties of Science and Engineering offer Honours programs for specific majors.
Finally, if you have demonstrated financial aid, you can secure a work-study position with any faculty that can involve paid research.
There are numerous online resources for finding research opportunities during the term. Professors often post on CAPS, and the Science Faculty has resources on their website as well.
Research Opportunities (Summer)
Faculty of Science and Engineering
Students in the Faculty of Science are eligible for two research awards: the Science Undergraduate Research Award (SURA) and the NSERC Undergraduate Student Research Award (USRA). Students in the Faculty of Engineering also qualify for USRA as well as the Summer Undergraduate Research in Engineering (SURE). All of these awards give its winners a stipend to fund their personal expenses while doing research over the summer.
Going abroad to do research is a great way to establish oversea connections and expose yourself to different research environments. Some research programs McGill students can apply to include the DAAD Research Internship in Science and Engineering (a German academic exchange), the EPFL Research Internship, and the UTokyo UTRIP Program.
More research opportunities can also be found on the Science Faculty’s website.
Make sure to do your homework before contacting professors. This will show that you genuinely care about their research and are eager to join their lab.
We recommend researching potential fields and departments that interest you, and specifically reading the research of the professor you plan on contacting. Scanning the abstracts from their recent publications will really demonstrate that you understand what you’re signing up for. For an even deeper understanding of what the professor’s lab is like, you can talk to other students who have worked in their lab. Make sure to never assume that a professor’s research is closely related to a course that they teach!
Also remember to approach the faculty with respect (address them formally) and understand that they’re busy. It may be best to contact professors during their office hours or via email. However, an in-person exchange can be very valuable, (and professors get swarmed with emails!) so try to schedule a time to talk as a follow-up to your email.
When introducing yourself, talk about your interests, qualifications (coursework and past experience), and your expectations of what the lab will be like. Have your CV and letter of intent available. If possible, try to think of an idea for a project that aligns with the skills of the supervisor you’ve contacted; think about what you want out of the research opportunity.
If a professor informs you that their lab is full, don’t be discouraged! Follow up with questions like when would be a good time to ask again, what skills they are looking for, and what you could work on in the meantime.
Lesson 3: What to do in the Lab
Your first laboratory experience may not be what you expect it to be; research positions can be very self-directed, and your supervisor may not be there to hold your hand through everything. In big labs, you can expect to be working with other graduate students and research assistants. The development of your research skills is up to you, so make sure to demonstrate a genuine interest and initiative. Feel free to have your own interests and discuss them with your supervisors.
Undergraduate research is still a professional position. When you’re working in a lab, always respond quickly to emails, be polite, and be on time. Remember that the research you’re helping with is someone else’s life’s work. If you’re not sure about something in the lab, or if you’re asked if you can do something, never lie. The safest option is to always be honest about what you can do, and show an eagerness to learn.
Keep on Trying!
Don’t expect to receive a yes to your first attempt at securing research. Always work to improve your skills through attending events, keeping updated on your field, and taking relevant courses.
If you’re interested in more research-related events or research publication, make sure to also follow the Abstract and the McGill Science Undergraduate Research Journal!